‘bread-artist’: meaning and origin

A loan translation from German Brotkünstler, the noun bread-artist designates an artist or writer who produces what is considered to be inferior work simply to earn a living.

These are, in chronological order, the earliest occurrences of the noun bread-artist that I have found:

—Quotations 1 and 2 are from texts by the Scottish historian and political philosopher Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881):

1-: From State of German Literature 1, published in The Edinburgh Review, or Critical Journal (Edinburgh: Printed by Ballantyne & Co. for Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green, London; and Adam Black, Edinburgh) of October 1827:

The character of a Poet does […] stand higher with the Germans than with most nations. That he is a man of integrity as a man; of zeal and honest diligence in his art, and of true manly feeling towards all men, is of course presupposed. Of persons that are not so, but employ their gift, in rhyme or otherwise, for brutish or malignant purposes, it is understood that such lie without the limits of Criticism, being subjects not for the judge of Art, but for the judge of Police. But even with regard to the fair tradesman, who offers his talent in open market, to do work of a harmless and acceptable sort for hire,—with regard to this person also, their opinion is very low. The ‘Bread-artist,’ as they call him, can gain no reverence for himself from these men.

1 State of German Literature is the review of the following books:
Die Poesie und Beredsamkeit der Deutschen, von Luthers Zeit bis zur Gegenwart. Dargestellt von Franz Horn. [The Poetry and Oratory of the Germans, from Luther’s Time to the Present. Exhibited by Franz Horn.] Berlin, 1822–23–24.
Umrisse zur Geschichte und Kritik der schönen Litteratur Deutschlands während der Jahre 1790–1818. [Outlines for the History and Criticism of Polite Literature in Germany, during the Years 1790–1818.] By Franz Horn. Berlin, 1819.

2-: From Book II of Sartor Resartus: The Life and Opinions of Herr Teufelsdröckh 2—as first published in Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country (London: James Fraser) of February 1834:

“Is it not well that there should be what we call Professions, or Bread-studies (Brodtzwecke), preappointed us? Here, circling like the gin-horse, for whom partial or total blindness is no evil, the Bread-artist can travel contentedly round and round, still fancying that it is forward and forward, and realise much: for himself victual; for the world an additional horse’s power in the grand corn-mill or hemp-mill of Economic Society.”

2 Sartor Resartus [The Tailor Re-tailored] purports to be a commentary on the thought and early life of a fictional German philosopher, Diogenes Teufelsdröckh [God-born Devil’s Dung].

—Quotations 3, 4 and 5 are from accounts of lectures given by the English Nonconformist preacher, lecturer, and social and political reformer George Dawson (1821-1876):

3-: From the account of a lecture that George Dawson gave in the Temperance Hall, Bolton, on the “Characteristics and Tendencies of the Present Age”—account published in The Bolton Free Press (Bolton, Lancashire, England) of Saturday 24th October 1846:

He [George Dawson] should pass on to another characteristic of the age, which was a pleasing one, and was in no slight degree prevalent, that was—high-mindedness. There was a sense, however, in which that word was applied, namely, a spirit of levity and pride, to which he did not now refer, but to the high principle of duty appreciating that which is really most valuable. This high-mindedness ought to run through all things. It had been a characteristic of artists. The best of artists knew what to do with the sublime, and had acted accordingly, as was instanced by Raffaele. Such men had not pandered to the vulgar taste existing in their day, but knowing what art ought to be, had so treated it. Many, however, had been the vulgar specimens of pretended art. With music the case was somewhat similar. There were polkas, and Nigger melodies, which indicated the uncultivated taste of those who indulged in them, and who certainly might be termed charlatans; such music was all-successful in a certain degree in answering the purposes for which it was intended; but those who promulgated it were,—to apply a term used by the Germans,—“Bread-artists,” they did it to serve their own ends, and not because music contained something which was good. There had been, however, men who had laboured in the art because they had deemed it their duty to do so; among whom stood prominently forth, Beethoven, the great German musician. That eminent composer had strove to improve the gift God had endowed him with, and had succeeded in producing some of the most beautiful specimens of music. He had wished to instruct and edify, and not merely to please; and though his efforts were not at first appreciated, he had sought to promote the art in its purity, and, as truth was always, sooner or later, a victor, so was it now acknowledged that he had composed some of the most spirited and elevated strains which any of the gifted children of the song had given to the world. As to the coarse literature of the age, it was prepared and brought before the world for similar reasons to that for which the razors in Peter Pindars [sic] 3 story were made, namely,—not to shave, but to sell. The literature in question was prepared not to improve the people, but to sell: book-makers, in such cases, might be termed “Bread artists” also. But it had always seemed wonderful to him, how rapid was the transit of such literature from the shop to the trunk-makers 4. Great books, however, though in times past they had been few and far between, had been preserved and appreciated.

3 This refers to The Razor-Seller, a humorous poem by the English satirist John Wolcot (1738-1819), who wrote under the pen name of Peter Pindar.
4 This is a reference to the use of the sheets of unsaleable books for trunk-linings—cf. the cultural background to the plebeian ‘trunkmaker’.

4-: From the account of a lecture that George Dawson gave in the New Hall, Leicester, on the “Characteristics of the Age”—account published in The Leicester Chronicle (Leicester, Leicestershire, England) of Saturday 21st November 1846:

The next feature was a feeling of high-mindedness—a tendency to be high-souled—high-spirited. Like as in art, there were two classes—high artists and low ones. The Germans called the lower class bread artists—men who used art only to get bread thereby. He was utterly devoid of that wretched sentimentalism which believed that artists ought to be half-starved. The Apostle Paul laid down, long ago, the rule that the men who taught the Gospel should live thereby—a man who would have stared, in modern times, to see people demanding that their teacher should appear like a gentleman, yet scarcely giving him enough to keep body and soul together. (Applause.) Persons were called bread-artists simply because they knew of no other rule than getting bread.

5-: From Mr. Dawson’s Third and Fourth Lectures, published in The Sheffield and Rotherham Independent (Sheffield, Yorkshire, England) of Saturday 12th December 1846:

On Monday evening, the lecturer was received with loud applause, and commenced his third lecture by reminding the audience that he had been speaking of the mischief of certain disunitive tendencies in society. Observation of nature and history shewed that all calamities arose from a violation of the unity of nature. Every sin was a violation of the union between God and men; and scientific errors arose from the same kind of error. It had been said that they murdered to dissect; but if it led them to forget the relations of the parts to the whole, it produced evil. The lecturer went on to recapitulate the leading features of the last lecture, and proceeded to say, that the recognition of the unity of morality would lead to a great change in human affairs. At present, it was thought Quixotic to say that nations should be governed on the same principles of right that ought to prevail between individuals. Life should be a manifestation of one spirit, and that should be the result of the highest style of thinking. A man was an epitome of the world; and the rules that should govern him, should govern also society. A right understanding of these things would make men high-minded. He used this term in the same sense as they did, when they spoke of an elevated souled man. Such a man was one who brought all his thoughts and employments to the highest standard of what was fair, right, and good. A nation was high-minded, when it adopted a law that was an experiment, because it answered to a principle. A high-minded man did what he believed right, whether it led to apparent utility, or threatening mischief. To follow principle prior to experiment, and laws contrary to experiment, was the part of a high-minded man. This was the true distinction between the high artist and the bread artist. The former acted from a conviction of the true and beautiful, and was neglected; while the latter pandered to the public caprice, and was favoured. So also it was the common mode to starve the preacher who ministered to the soul, while the cook who ministered to the body was pampered. So, too, men would starve the poet, and feed high the cook. Some would rejoice to screw a guinea from the pew rent, and pay readily far more for a concert, where the ear was to be tickled for an hour or two. These things he mentioned, to shew how sentimentalism sometimes screened avarice, which, in stingy times, always became economical in the schoolmaster’s bill or the spiritualist’s allowance, rather than by retrenching one useless luxury. He had seen often that the spiritualist or the teacher was the first to feel the effect of any reduction. The cook’s wages might not be diminished, and the table not less supplied, but the minister’s salary might be reduced, and the child kept with one accomplishment less. The high-minded artist did not work only for bread, but he not the less earned his wages, and had a right to demand and receive them. But he did not, as the bread artist, degrade himself to pander to a low taste. He did not get things up to sell, but was content to bring forth his labours, and wait his time. Some of the greatest books now most esteemed, were not understood when they were written, and like the sun, did not run after the earth, but waited till the earth should turn to them. Wordsworth at first was not appreciated. He waited his time. The age rolled round to him; and now he was acknowledged as one of the pure sages who guide and govern our time. A high-minded man was one who walked by the true rather than the temporary, who appreciated eternal principles rather than the laws of expediency, utility, and fashion. It was a law in ethics, that nothing was ever done well that did not base itself on the eternal laws. This was true of the poems of Dante and Milton. And even among the ruins of the world, they found those that were built to the Deity, though not truly known, lasted longest.

The earliest American-English occurrences of the noun bread-artist that I have found are from Ralphton; Or, The Young Carolinian of 1776. A Romance on the Philosophy of Politics (Charleston, South Carolina: Burges and James, 1848), a Roman-Catholic novel by the U.S. military officer, engineer and author Abbott Hall Brisbane (1804-1861):

“We are prepared for any thing that will promise the most favorable result. Results, I mean, to the human race, as ‘bread artist,’ to borrow a forcible expression of the day;—any thing that will secure wherewithal to satisfy ‘the imperative demands of hunger.’”
“I allude to the temporal pursuits of man; man, as the bread artist, as you call him; what are these? first, production, second transportation, and third, exchange.”

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